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What Happened to the Citizens of the Year?

In 1986, Western Springs began recognizing citizens for their volunteerism and leadership in the community. But, 25 years later, the program had run its course.

“Citizens of the Year” Group Photo – circa 2009
“Citizens of the Year” Group Photo – circa 2009

In 1986, Western Springs was celebrating its centennial … 100 years as a village. As part of the year-long festivities, the Centennial Commission decided to select local men and women as “Citizens of the Month”. Those selected were to have made “outstanding and lasting contributions” to the village.

 

In that first year, the list reflected a wonderful cross-section of deserving people. They included Don Barnes, former school superintendent, Charles Neal, the driving force behind developing the Grand Avenue Community Center, Maude Ericson, who created the town’s historical society, and Catherine Menninger, who founded the Community Extension Project.

 

When the Centennial year concluded, the Western Springs Community Center Association (WSCCA) decided to continue this recognition program by selecting a deserving man and woman on an annual basis. The event would feature a banquet, which would also be used to raise funds for the then-new community center. The selection committee would consist of previously designated “Citizens of the Month”, who would make their selections based on nominees’ prior community service.

 

Chosen that year were Ed Johnson, the proprietor of Village Hardware who was also active in community affairs, and Ruth Vogele, who had served on numerous village and church boards and commissions. The selectees were recognized at the WSCCA “Grand Ball”, which was open to the public.

 

But, being selected for this honor did not end there. The selectees assumed responsibility for chairing the committee to solicit nominees sfor the following year and then coordinating the voting process, banquet arrangements, ticket sales, and program. And, of course, they were expected to ride in the village’s annual Memorial Day parade.

 

Over the next eleven years, the list of selectees included such familiar names as Len Caldeira, the moving force behind the Tower Trot, Saranne Milano, who served as village president and was active in numerous youth and church organizations, and John Kravcik, who also served as village president and on numerous church and school committees. 

 

By 1998, the Grand Avenue Community Center bonds had been paid off and the WSCCA’s fund-raising needs had lessened. As a result, the association transferred the Citizens of the Year program to the Friends of the Parks and the Thomas Ford Library Foundation. These sponsoring groups would alternate, each coordinating the event every other year. But, the selection process continued as before, including an annual banquet to recognize the recipients.

 

While this arrangement lasted for four years, it was finally decided to let the Citizens of the Year Committee to operate independently.

 

The ensuing 10 years saw the selection of some of the village’s most involved and dedicated individuals. For example, for 2010, the 125th anniversary of the village’s founding, the Committee selected Liz Burns who had served the Ford Library for many years, as well as Pete Caris, whose work with the Historical Society was exemplary.  See second photo.

 

But, all was not well. For example, paid banquet attendance declined from 247 in 2004 to just 130 in 2009. Yet, expenses did not decline proportionately, resulting in a small net loss.

 

While some attributed the steady drop in attendance to the relatively high ticket price ($75 per person), the Committee felt that the event was simply not attracting enough younger people. According to Jeanine Jasica, herself a 1999 Citizen of the Year, “They (younger people) aren’t coming out, and they are not nominating people for Citizen of the Year”. The rest of the committee apparently agreed, voting 13 to 7 in favor of concluding the event after 2010.

 

While the committee was hopeful that another group might step forward and perhaps take the program in a new direction, this did not happen. But, as Jasica said, “… we’ve had a great run and a lot of fun.”

 

Each week, the Western Springs Historical Society presents a “Blast from the Past”. To view prior stories, visit us at www.westernspringshistory.org.  

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